The flight was scheduled to leave at 8:20. The sign at the ticket counter shows that the flight is on time, but it’s now 9:10 and the flight hasn’t even boarded. Why? Is the weather bad? Are the pilots drunk? No one knows. As the minutes pass and tempers flare. “I wish they’d tell us what’s going on,” a passenger fumes.
Your employees are the passengers on your airline. They want to know what’s going on. If they don’t know, morale stays firmly earthbound. Now, a dose of reality: It isn’t possible to keep all the people happy all the time. (In fact, it’s not even a sensible goal.) So why bother to keep employees in the loop? Because most employees will appreciate it, because keeping employees in the loop is too important to ignore, and because it’s a big part of your job. Just remember:
• It’s about them. Listen to the questions that employees ask when they get new information. Almost all of them will be some variation of, “What does that mean to me?” Focus on how employees will be most affected and be straight with them about it. If you don’t yet know how employees will be affected (and when senior management is scrambling in tough times, you often don’t) admit that you don’t know but commit to sharing the information as soon as you do know.
• Provide context. According to the polls we’ve taken, most employees say that management’s decisions are arbitrary and poorly considered. That belief reflects the fact that employees are rarely given any context for the information they get. Take a page from Journalism 101 and tell them:
• Who made the decision and who will be affected by it
• What the decision is and what it means
• When it will happen
• Where the company is going and how the decision contributes to progress
• Why the decision was made
• How the plan will be implemented
• Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep in mind that what employees want to know and what they need to know are two different things. Employees really only need information about things that affect the whole company (e.g., mergers, product launches, new policies) and those that affect their specific jobs.
• Don’t rely on one format. Some people learn by hearing, others by reading, and still others through action. Meet those needs by sharing information several ways:
• Hold meetings
• Send e-mail
• Leave “broadcast” voicemail
• Post information in break rooms or other gathering spots
• Post information on the company Intranet
• Use more “active” media (such as e-mail) for more urgent or important information, and more “passive” media (such as an Intranet) for less urgent information.
• Expect some blowback. Employees want to know what’s going on, but that doesn’t mean that they will be happy about everything they hear. You should expect protests, complaints and other responses that will not put you in your happy place. You don’t need to take action in response to every complaint (and, let’s face it, you can’t), but you do need to listen respectfully and acknowledge what you’ve heard.
• Ask for feedback. You’ve put the information out there, but did anyone notice or care? One way to find out is to ask for feedback. Are employees confused? Frustrated? Mad as hell? Indifferent? Asking the question increases the odds that employees will pay attention, and the responses can tell you whether you need to communicate more. Let employees know what you’re going to do with the feedback.
• Be proactive. Don’t wait to be asked before sharing information.
• Get help. You don’t have to do all the communicating yourself. Ask employees working on specific projects or responsible for specific functions to communicate with their coworkers. Review their initial efforts before they share them to be sure they’re complete and helpful.
• Review the union contract. If a union represents your employees, be sure you’re familiar with the terms of the contract. Are you required to give specific notice of work assignment changes, changes in shifts, or other job matters?
• Cut yourself some slack. If every employee knew everything all the time, it would be a miracle. Feel good if most employees know most of what they need to know most of the time.
Real Life Examples
Laura Janke became the manager of 13 people who were dispirited and wary after working with an unsuccessful manager. To get things back on track, she implemented weekly meetings to discuss everything and anything. At first, no one knew quite what to expect and sometimes the meetings were little more than gripe fests. Ultimately, they became an effective tool.
The meetings were a forum to discuss changes, deadlines, and activities in other departments that might have bearing on Janke’s department. Janke also used the meetings for training, praise, and thanks. At the end of each meeting, everyone attending had a chance to share news.
Janke says the meetings were a success in part because they happened consistently. The meetings were held at the same time each week, and Janke had a sign in her office as a reminder. Employees reminded Janke if she got busy or forgot; only twice in a year did she cancel the meeting.
“The meetings helped build a truly cohesive department that was fragmented and in disarray when I stepped in,” Janke says.